The Great American Chemtrail

Understanding one of the country’s most bizarre paranoias…

chemtrails

Earlier this year, after Prince was found dead on the floor of an elevator in his Paisley Park recording studio, some strange headlines appeared through Google News. These included “Did The Chemtrail Flu Kill Prince?” and “Special Report: Was Prince Murdered By Illuminati Record Execs?” These articles suggested that Prince had not been killed by excessive indulgence in opiates, as was the default hypothesis at the time and as the autopsy would eventually confirm. Instead, Prince’s death was allegedly related to “chemtrails,” – airborne chemical agents released by planes as part of a global conspiracy.

In fact, the singer himself had been a believer in the sinister influence of “chemtrails.” On the Tavis Smiley Show, Prince explained:

“You know, when I was a kid I used to see these trails in the sky all the time and ‘Oh that’s cool—a jet just went over.’ And then you started to see whole bunch of them and next thing you know everybody in your neighborhood was fighting and arguing and you didn’t know why.”

When Prince died suddenly at the age of 57, some believed the late star was assassinated for speaking out. Others theorized, as swivel-eyed Infowars editor Alex Jones suggested to his two million radio listeners, that he was killed by a “weaponized flu” caused by the trails.

To believers, the “chemtrail” is like any ordinary plane condensation trail (or “contrail”) in the sky, but one with suspiciously long-lasting features. Chemtrails, they say, persist for as many as 12 hours, and contain a mixture of ominous particulates such as aluminium, pathogens, and even desiccated blood. To denizens of online chemtrail forums, the trails have all manner of sinister purposes. Believers speculate that the trails may be part of a secret geo-engineering project involving solar radiation management or weather modification. Some on chemtrail forums also insist they have seen changes in the moon’s orbit, or claim to possess information that WiFi frequencies could be changing our DNA. They suspect some kind of government attempt at either social manipulation, human population control, or biological/chemical warfare (perhaps even all three). One frequenter of the GeoEngineeringWatch site writes:

They are altering the weather and sunlight to cause a seemingly “natural” global famine to depopulate human beings to numbers of their choosing. They are committing perpetrated democide, depopulating exactly as they said they would do, and they are using “global warming” as their cover story for mass murder.

Some believe, as Prince evidently did, that the trails are causing illnesses and social problems, part of a plot to spread disease in order to create future markets for powerful pharmaceutical corporations. A few claim to have acquired the symptoms of “Morgellons disease,” a delusional non-ailment in which a person believes herself to be infested with insects, parasites or fibers. Chemtrail forum-dwellers call the whole phenomenon a part of “the largest crime against humanity in human history.”

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It is fair to say that scientists have universally dismissed (and repeatedly, exasperatedly debunked) every single one of the chemtrail theorists’ claims. However, this only provides further proof to believers of how deep the conspiracy goes! Believers post photographs depicting the interiors of planes, in which the cabin is stocked with large containers connected by tubes. The photos are accompanied by the exclamation that “This is the spraying equipment!” In fact, the pictures merely show planes filled with ballast barrels, water tanks that are used to simulate passenger loads during the flight testing of new airliner designs. (The tubes allow water to be pumped from tank to tank, simulating passenger motion in the cabin.)

The theory’s proponents insist chemtrails are a new phenomenon, but when confronted with photographs of long-lasting condensation trails from as far back as World War II, they refer to the military’s long history of weather modification plots. As for so many faiths and cults, every piece of contradictory evidence is seen to further bolster the theory. Moon-landing conspiracies work similarly—every additional photograph of human beings literally standing on the moon is just more evidence that the whole thing was faked.

The allegations of chemtrail theorists are pretty easily dealt with. But the belief has proven impressively persistent. A search for chemtrails brings up 5.5 million Google results and a 2011 study found that 16.6% of a sample of 3105 people in the US, Canada and the UK believed either “entirely” or, more often, “to some extent” in the existence of a conspiracy involving chemtrails. Prince was not the only celebrity to issue expostulations against chemtrail doubters. Aging TV martial artist and right-wing paranoiac Chuck Norris also plugged the theory, insisting that chemtrails regularly appear in the skies over his Texas ranch. Joni Mitchell has publicly claimed to be a sufferer of “Morgellon’s disease.” Mitchell was among those condemning the CDC for treating the syndrome as imaginary, insisting she had contracted a “weird, incurable disease that seems like it’s from outer space” in which “fibers in a variety of colors protrude out of my skin like mushrooms after a rainstorm: they cannot be forensically identified as animal, vegetable or mineral.”

The origins of the chemtrail conspiracy narrative can be traced back to the late 1990s when a piece by “investigative journalist” William Thomas suggested that “Contrails spread by fleets of jet aircraft in elaborate cross-hatched patterns are sparking speculation and making people sick across the United States.” From there, the idea spread to late-night talk radio, where “UFOlogists” and paranormal investigators have long found a sympathetic ear. But the chemtrails conspiracy also coincided directly with the early rise of the Internet forum as a venue for the sharing of ideas, and it was on exhaustively-compiled, garishly-designed websites that the theory was most successfully promoted.

The success of the chemtrails theory in the online world shows the particular conduciveness of the platform to conspiratorial thinking, though the Internet has also always been the perfect platform for making fun of such thinking. Richard Hofstadter’s famous description of the “uncommonly angry minds” that made up the “paranoid style” in American political thought could be a description of just about any contemporary online forum on even the most mundane and uncontroversial of topics. Add to that mix an all encompassing theory of government geo-engineering, population control and a global apocalyptic conspiracy raining down from the sky, throw in Big Oil, Big Pharma and the Jews and Hofstadter’s description becomes something of an understatement.

Chemtrail activists frequently attend events and conferences on geo-engineering, and many academics working in the area have been subjected to threats and verbal abuse for their alleged role in the conspiracy. Pilots and weather reporters receive harassment and threats from anti-chemtrails activists. While conspiratorial paranoia may generally be America’s harmless national pastime, in the case of chemtrails, online forums are full of justifications and fantasies of violence toward those seen to be involved in the plot. On a generically populist site titled “thepeoplesvoice.org,” one writer says, “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve fantasized about firing a missile at the jets laying chemtrails over our skies.” Other commenters on chemtrail forums warn, “There’s only one answer. Kill them before they kill you” or “Why won’t they tell us there [sic] plan and leave us and the world we live in alone.” Another wonders, “Am I the only one that is considering picking up a gun and shooting these people dead before they get my mother, my father, my sister, my brother, and even my garden?” (First they came for the begonias, and I said nothing…)

Perhaps needless to say, Jews are often implicated. One believer posted a video on YouTube called “Star of David chemtrails/persistent contrails” in which he films criss-crossing trails in the sky, grimly observing off-camera that “They create the Star of David… speaks for itself.”

There is a genteel approach, sometimes found in academic writing, to consider the ill-written and baseless ramblings of conspiracy theory forums as kinds of “counter-knowledges” or as different “ways of knowing.” Indeed, such beliefs often do come from seemingly politically disenfranchised people with possible mental health issues.

But the only thing more patronizing than to deride such beliefs would be not to do so. One also has to wonder if such a sympathetic reading would be given if the racial conspiratorial undertones were against any group but the Jews. And in practice it’s hard to be patiently open-minded while reading typical communiqués like this on an anti-chemtrails YouTube video:

“MORGELLONS KiLLS!!!!!!! […] MORGELLONS FROM CHEMTRAiLS

THiS SECRET WAR ON YOU MUST BE STOPPED!!!!

if You don’t say no and stop this, we all will suffer and die

THANK YOU FOR STOPPiNG NewWorldOrder/NATO/Chemtrails/RFiD Powder/Smart Dust!!!!!!!”

The 1990’s saw an explosion of conspiracy theory culture in the United States, in the reverberations from decades of the paranoid Cold War years. Beginning in the 1990s, the era-defining TV show The X-Files featured Russian nuclear sewer monsters, U.S. government alien cover-ups, secret geo-engineering, population control projects and domestic terrorism (back when the term “terrorism” conjured up nightmare visions of rampaging Southern hillbillies instead of bearded jihadis). And it is worth remembering that many of the conspiratorial domestic terrorists of the 1990’s had in fact experienced terrible crimes at the hands of the state. Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber, was subjected to cruel CIA experiments during his time as a Harvard undergraduate. The so-called “MK Ultra” research of the ‘50s and ‘60s, which used LSD and psychological abuse on unsuspecting subjects, is now a notorious chapter in the agency’s history and as horrifying as anything alleged on anti-chemtrails forums. Timothy McVeigh, who carried out the Oklahoma City bombing, killing 168 and injuring around 600, was a veteran who had witnessed the horrific violence of the Gulf War. McVeigh had become fixated on the Clinton Administration’s needless massacre at Waco, in which 76 people were shot and burned alive after a siege by the FBI and ATF went horrendously awry.

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As in Hofstadter’s 1964 analysis, the online  world of the chemtrails conspiracy is not recognizably right or left wing. There are elements associated with the fringe of U.S. ultra-conservatism, such as fear of Big Government’s statist dastardliness. The overlap between the militia movement and the conspiracy crowd is significant. But there are also elements of the more Romantic-tinged Green left, such as an opposition to the industrial plunder of nature and a fear of being poisoned by sprayed chemicals. There are echoes of ideas also found in the Unabomber’s manifesto about the evils of industrial society. Conspiratorial notions also tend to find a sympathetic audience among the socialistically-inclined during times of real political weakness. The Left Forum in New York (a prominent annual gathering attended by what Amber Frost called “bitter old codgers,” “Maoist Third World-ists,” “sanctimonious Trotskyists,” and “adherents of similarly esoteric ideological traditions”) hosts conspiracy theorists on its panels. These include 9/11 “Truthers”, who remind the assembled radicals that jet fuel can’t melt steel beams.

The cultural critic Fredric Jameson argued that conspiracy theories are used as an improvised guide to our overwhelmingly complex social landscape. It is often easier to imagine sinister cabals and physically impossible phenomena than it is to accept the open and known injustices of the world. Who needs the Illuminati when almost the entire British government went to the same schools? One only has to read Yanis Varoufakis’ accounts of the internal workings of international financial bodies or look at the dynasties and tiny elites that run the world of government and capital to wonder if the paranoid person is just, as William Burroughs put it “a person in possession of all the facts.” The paranoid impulse is not so much wrong as too often misdirected and it is often not a particularly distant leap from the truth to the fiction. People are right in their intuition that there are dark forces arrayed against them but they’re more likely to find the information they seek in the dull finance section of any newspaper than on chemtrails forums that weave more compelling narratives.

In fact, chemtrail believers have a paradoxical mixture of rationalist skepticism and dogmatic faith. They spend their time carefully parsing documents with a scrupulousness worthy of the IRS. Like committed scientists, they quest after “truth,” they want to know what’s “really” going on. They see unexplained horrors in the world around them, and they are persistent askers of “Why?”

Yet they are fundamentally religious in their outlook, insofar as they believe on faith in something that others cannot see. The online conspiracy world speaks of “sheeple” and issues commands to “wake up.” This is one expression of an entire online discourse of waking up, also shared by the “men’s rights” online community “RedPill” (a reference to the film The Matrix, in which by taking the “red pill,” one become aware of the truth about one’s fabricated reality.) There is a quasi-spiritual dimension to the born-again experiences people describe when they “woke up” to reality. Although unlike Christians, who awake to something they find beautiful and fulfilling, the online rebirth tends to involve plunging into darkness to see the truth.

Chemtrail conspiracies are, to some extent, just another incarnation of the human search for meaning, albeit one that is irrational and occasionally threatening. Today most of us live at the mercy of unknowably complex and volatile economic forces whose inner financial workings are entirely opaque to all but a few. The all-encompassing chemtrails conspiracy may appeal because it orders a chaotic world. As a replacement for religious traditions and political projects which both contained beautiful and redemptive ideas, individualism as the only surviving ideology has turned out to be thin gruel for some. In the absence of anything else to have faith in and so much to try to understand, why not chemtrails?